Punch Pizza's big cheese, John Puckett, on the secrets of his success

John Puckett recoiled when I referred to him as the most prolific restaurateur in the Twin Cities, "Let's hope not." But the founder of Caribou coffee and partner in Punch Pizza can claim a hand in opening over 400 stores, easily eclipsing Famous Dave and his BBQ joints at 175. The first question was an easy one.

In such a tough market place why have you had so much success when so many others have failed. Someone told me that entrepreneurs are actually risk averse. Before both Caribou and Punch, we did a lot of homework and planning to reduce some of the risk. If you put down on paper, before you start, how you want to make your business stand out and be different, you'll have a lot better chance. The beautiful thing and the bad thing about this business is it's capital intensive. Either the cash comes in or it doesn't, and it's game over if it doesn't.

So is it more of a content issue or an accounting issue? It's both. To be a success in this you have to be part Elvis, part Jesus, and part accountant. The Elvis part is the sexy, positive, attractive piece. The Jesus part is the good listener, good with people part that isn't a jerk. The accountant is the person who says,"No, this is crazy--focus!" So we've focused on limited menus, things that work, and coincidentally things that came out of Naples. (Both espresso and Neapolitan pizza had their genesis in Naples, Italy.)

We all know the story of you and your wife high on the mountain, spotting the herd of caribou bounding across the meadow and deciding you needed to make a change, that change being Caribou coffee. Was there a similar, mystical experience that led you to get into Punch Pizza? Punch was a more typical story. It was our favorite restaurant. We got to know the founders because it was our date-night place. We'd drive from west of Wayzata to Highland Village two or three times a month for dinner. We were addicts. I thought I could take what I learned from Caribou and maybe not repeat the mistakes we made.

Every time you hangout with your wife, good things happen. You're right! But it's really hard growing a business together, so it's been easier this time with Punch as she's more focused on the kids. I still get advice from her, but we're not doing the 24/7 business-building we did with Caribou, and that's nice. It can be stressful.

How so? When we were starting we were 24-years-old, we didn't know anything about business, we were sleeping on the floor of the original Caribou. Thank God we were married and were doing it together, because otherwise we probably would have divorced just because of the hours. At the beginning the founder needs to be there, meeting the people, making quick decisions. You can't outsource that.

800 degree wood-fired oven
800 degree wood-fired oven

Why pizza, why now? Neapolitan Pizza has been around for hundreds of years, this isn't something you invented. When I got into Punch, pizza was in the same place coffee was when we started Caribou: It got crappy, it got commodity led, and it was a delivery/coupon business. People were ready and looking for something more. The same thing is going on in burgers. With McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's you get a crappy piece of meat. People want something better. (Enter Burger Jones and Smashburger.) The reason Neapolitan pizza is successful is its simplicity. Simplicity reveals quality. You can cheat and put tons of toppings on a pizza and hide it's weaknesses, but a simple pizza reveals what you're doing well and what you're doing poorly. Unless you're really passionate about your pizza, Neapolitan pizza is hard to do right.

I make a lot of pizza at home, but replicating what you do here seems out of reach. Do you use a special flour or ... My partner is a mad scientist always playing with yeast, protein levels, and proof times. We have a lab dedicated to dough. It's a science. We're constantly looking to improve. We also cook the pizzas in a wood-fired oven at around 800 degrees, something that's hard to replicate at home.

There is a real tradition to Neapolitan pizza, and yet you need to be responsive to the desires of the marketplace. How do you avoid bringing in pineapple and Canadian bacon?

Margherita Extra
Margherita Extra

You just say no. We lose a lot of customers, I'm sure. But I've learned that it's just as important who you turn away from your pizzeria as those you serve. If we appeal to the Canadian bacon and pineapple crowd we lose our focus. People have asked for the cheese to be put down first, for it to be made into a square and cut in party squares, and we just have said no.

The one thing we have begrudgingly done is cut the pizzas. For the first six months we didn't cut the pizzas. But having all the servers coming back, asking for the pizza to be cut forced our hand.

So in Naples they don't cut their pizzas? If you ask for your pizza to be cut in Naples, a waiter will come out with a knife and fork and cut it up for you like you're a baby.

What other adjustments have you had to make, were there any bumps along the way? Our first store killed, but when we opened our second store in Eden Prairie, we pissed off most of the city. The original Highland Village store was table service, just dinner, and open only five nights a week for 20 hours total. In Eden Prairie that wasn't received well, and the table service was not a good paradigm for the location. After a couple months we had to reconsider even keeping it open. It was really tough. But we started experimenting with quick-service and being open for lunches. It took a while to figure out who our customer was and what they wanted. Now most of our stores are like that.

What's next for Punch? We're aiming to add one store a year, and continue to focus on our social media use. Social media has enabled us to have a closer one-on-one relationship with our customers and save money on mailing and traditional advertising, which we then use to give away food to our customers. We're also looking at some gluten-free options, possibly a gluten-free night.

the new grande pizza
the new grande pizza

We're also going to launch our Grande pizza. The same amount of dough but spread out bigger and thinner. We're not going to cut it so you have to eat it like a Neapolitan. Just ask for your pizza to be made Grande style.

We're adding new and better ingredients, a new anchovy, and new cheeses. We constantly strive to improve on what we're doing. For instance, we already fly in the buffalo mozzarella from Naples for the Margherita Extra, but we've recently started partially drying the cherry tomatoes, which makes them sweeter. It's $3 more than the regular margherita but worth it.

Punch Pizza has seven locations around the metro.

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Punch Neapolitan Pizza

3226 W. Lake St.
Minneapolis, MN 55416


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